Tag Archive for Caldecott Elen

Celebrity Authors

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed a proliferation of celebrity authors of children’s books. So far this year we have announcements of imminent books from Danny Baker, Dermot O’Leary, Fearne Cotton, and most recently, Miranda Hart. This week, I noticed that Jessica Ennis-Hill has a seven book series being published. Earlier this month, I myself reviewed the latest offering – a middle grade fiction novel from DJ Christian O’Connell. Others, of course, include David Baddiel, David Walliams, Russell Brand, Frank Lampard, Pharrell Williams, in fact the list goes on and on*

Some of them write their own stuff, and some of the books are ghost-written. And some of the books are good, some average, and some awful. I’ve yet to come across a great one – but you can let me know via my twitter handle if I’m wrong about that. So I can’t, and wouldn’t want, to tarnish them all with the same brush. For example, I happen to know that Chris Hoy’s books are written (or co-written depending on the source) by a really talented children’s writer, Joanna Nadin – and it shows. The plots work well, they are paced nicely, and I’ve rather enjoyed them. Ennis-Hill’s books name Elen Caldecott (a professional children’s author) as a co-author (a visible ghost, which must be progress on an invisible ghost-writer), and Elen’s a writer I admire greatly.

Kids like celeb authors. Well some kids enjoy some of them. They like the David Walliams books apparently – they’re certainly popular among the kids I work with. Although none I know claim that any of his titles are their ‘favourite’ books. But there is one thing these children have in common – they all have access to this celeb’s books.

The celebrity books are face out in the booksellers (chains at least). They have high profile, high sales, good discounts, press coverage, they appear on the World Book Day book list. So, children associate children’s books with celebrity. Is that bad? Yes, and here’s why.

Firstly, it belittles the writing of the book. It promotes the thinking that it’s not hard to do – look Chris Hoy can win Olympic medals and churn out a few kids’ stories. David Walliams is on Britain’s Got Talent and numerous comedy shows, but will also churn out another children’s book. Look, Dermot O’Leary can present the X-Factor and write a book. Celebrities give the impression that writing a book is easy – an extension to their brand, a spare time project.

Don’t get me wrong – it’s not as if most ‘ordinary’ children’s authors can write full time. Most have other jobs; teaching in schools, working as booksellers, teaching creative writing etc. But they do these other jobs as necessities to bring in the money to pay the mortgage. If they could, they would all write full time.

Because it’s hard! Writing a good book takes lots of thought, and rewrites and editing, and more rewrites. It takes time and dedication and perseverance (and resilience). Because to succeed when you’re a nobody is hard. When you hear of authors having their books rejected (SF Said 90 times, Malorie Blackman 82 times, even Anne Frank’s Diary was rejected 15 times), it’s because they were penned by unknowns.

So it takes a really good book to make the cut. And that takes hard work. And you need to have the right topic, at the right time, because you’re a person that nobody’s heard of. One agent told me: “it takes an enormous amount of work and energy to launch a debut author, and we have to feel real passion for a project to talk about it for years and years.”

That’s just not the case for celebrity authors – it doesn’t take the same amount of work and energy, and sometimes it can be the passion for the person rather than the project that gives it sales for years and years. After television appearances, the book’s sales take care of themselves – the book doesn’t need its own publicist in the same way that a writer holed up at home does.

And so, and this is my second point, I can’t help but think that the bar for acceptance is lower for celebrities. There’s a readymade readership, and that’s why publishers take them on (most celebs already have the agent). They don’t have to spend years honing their craft to make the book noticeable on the slush pile. Their books just don’t have to be as good.

The given excuse in the industry is that the big names pay the salaries of the publishers, editors, agents, distributors, printers and booksellers, thereby giving leeway for the publisher to take the odd punt on a nobody. But how many good stories are we missing because the space has been taken by a celeb?

And thirdly, professional authors (not celebrities) are feeling the bite of the celebrity cult. There’s only so much space in the bookstores, only so many shelves in a library, columns on a review page. They still have to pitch their books to publishers, even once established. And there’s a disparity in the advances, with some celebrities receiving six figure sums, and professionals receiving low four figures. Ie. Wealth bestows wealth. Are we squeezing out not just new talent, but established talent?

Of course for the professional writers hired as ghost writers or visible ghosts on the celebrity books, there is a massive plus, and not just in monetary terms. Elen Caldecott kindly took the time to explain to me how beneficial she has found being the visible ghost behind Jessica Ennis-Hill’s new series:

“Working with Jessica has allowed me to take risks which would not normally be allowed within this (small c) conservative industry. I have been desperate to write a working-class, northern book for years now, but copy editors will standardise text to ‘Surrey English’. As Jessica tells her stories in her Sheffield accent, it was crucial to both of us that the text reflect this.”

“It’s the weight of the ‘brand’ name on the cover that has allowed this artistic risk to be taken…I can’t tell you how excited I was to be given a chance to do this.”

It’s an industry that is scared to take risks without a celebrity facia. Understandable in these difficult times, but a shame – yes.

Also, a celebrity name draws in those readers who might not otherwise reach for a book. This is a more palatable reason for celeb authors with visible ghosts, only in that if it gets children reading, then it can’t be wrong. However, why do celebrities have to be named as the ‘author’? Why not just endorse it (cover stickers/photos/quotes)? Look what Richard and Judy did for the fiction book market? What Zoella is doing for the YA book market with her WHSmith book club? Why not Miranda Hart’s ‘funniest children’s books’ list?

Because lastly, the message we’re giving children is that writing isn’t open to everyone, artistic freedom isn’t open to everyone. It demonstrates that to succeed in the book world you have to be famous first. Or rich. And outgoing. Which isn’t the case. Writing is for everyone, and children need to know that. Some of the best writers have been downright reclusive.

I’m not saying celebrities shouldn’t try their hand at writing, I’m not saying all their books are bad. I’m just saying let’s stop sending this message to kids about authors, and stop giving them second-rate books. As a society, we need to stop valuing average quality from celebrities over top quality from professionals.

Let’s tell children that ANYONE can write a book. But it’s not easy – it takes hard work, grit and determination – like being good at anything in life – you can’t just have it handed to you on a plate.

 

 

*Isla Fisher, Holly Willoughby, Ellie Simmonds, Theo Walcott, Peter Andre, Julian Clary, John Travolta, Katie Price, Madonna, Ricky Gervais, Barack Obama, Harry Hill, Kylie, Julie Andrews, Gloria Estefan, Will Smith, Julianna Moore, Whoopi Goldberg, …

Mystery Stories

We start solving mysteries from early on. Most toddlers play with some kind of shape sorting – working out that the square block fits through the square hole. Perhaps then moving onto jigsaw puzzles – at first the large ones with sticking up handles, and then finally the traditional puzzles, creating pictures of Disney heroines or maps of the world. All this goes towards child development in developing the gross and fine motor skills of course, but solving puzzles enables a child to hone memory, use logic and refine observation skills, and to sort the red herrings from the real clues.

Then eventually, putting pen to paper, children may tackle a spot the difference, a wordsearch, a crossword, a su doku.

What’s satisfying about these tasks is that by solving the problem, a child is restoring order at the end – bringing closure to the problem, much in the same way that authors end children’s books – with uplifting closure.

And the same applies to reading a detective or mystery story. Enid Blyton used to be the doyenne of such spiels – her Secret Seven and Famous Five solving mystery after mystery. Scooby Doo followed on TV, and we became a nation of child detective experts. Mysteries force the reader or viewer to hold information in their head, whilst following the story and working out critically where the story is headed – analysing characters for motive and honesty.

In contemporary children’s literature the depth and breadth of mystery stories is quite astounding; more and more of these land on my desk every day.

detective dog

Detective Dog by Julia Donaldson, illustrated by Sara Ogilvie
In picture books, the most recent is Julia Donaldson’s The Detective Dog. Not her strongest, but this time she’s paired with illustrator Sara Ogilvie, whose illustrations are bright, comic and refreshing. The Detective Dog’s mission is to see where all the books from the school have disappeared to. Despite some rather tenuous plotting, the book celebrates love of libraries (if only I knew of a real library that looked like the illustration in here – every booklover’s dream), but the story is sweet and the illustrations exquisite. There’s no doubt Donaldson is our queen of picture book rhyme:

“Thousands of books, from the floor to the ceiling.
The books gave the thief the most heavenly feeling.
He gazed in amazement. “Where am I?” he said,
And Peter replied, “In the library, Ted.”

You can buy it here.

dotty detective

Dotty Detective by Clara Vulliamy
For newly independent readers, Clara Vulliamy’s offering, Dotty Detective, fits the bill beautifully. Filled to the brim with illustrations, capital letters, italics, and written in a clearly paced diary format, this is the story of Dot, a little girl with more personality than doodles in the book. The text reads breathlessly – Dot talking to the diary – and soon she forms a detective agency with her school friend and faithful dog. There are some lovely ideas tucked in here, from the pink wafer code to homemade periscopes – lots of references to what’s important to this age group – sparkly red lucky shoes and yummy dinners, and enough dropped clues that the young reader can solve the mystery ahead of Dot. This is a perfect step up from picture books – the number of maps, illustrations, fake photographs, notes and even word searches mean that this is a story that lends itself as much to visual literacy as to textual. Seek the first in the series here.

nancy parker

Nancy Parker’s Diary of Detection by Julia Lee
Another diary format, and more mysteries in this historical book from Julia Lee. It is the 1920s and Nancy Parker has been employed as a housemaid for her first job. She has a penchant for reading six-penny thrillers, and wants to be a detective, so she seeks our mystery where she can. And luckily for her, there does seem to be some strange activity from her new employer – she has lavish parties, a murky past and a cook with a secret. Add to that a spate of local burglaries, and Nancy’s detective skills are put to use.

There’s a lovely rounded cast here, from the boy next door – Quentin Ives who wishes he was a dashing undercover spy called John Horsefield, but is really rather a nincompoop, and Ella, the brave and daring daughter of a local archaeologist. The three children are thrown together in solving the mystery, and although reluctant at first, realise that they are stronger together.

This book is full of wry comic fun, and great characters. Each child is so well painted, so thoroughly flawed and yet likeable that the reader will never tire of reading of their adventures (albeit there is no massive mystery to solve in the end). Partly written as Nancy’s diary in stunning handwritingish typeface, and partly in third person prose from the different children’s points of view, this was a really enjoyable read with great historical detail. Highly recommend. For 9+ years. Buy it here.

alice jones

Alice Jones by Sarah Rubin
Far more contemporary, Alice Jones is presented as a bit of a whizz kid. She excels at maths, and has a reputation for solving mysteries before the story begins. When a famous scientist goes missing after reputedly inventing an invisibility suit, Alice has to work out how to find him, at the same time as protecting her friends.

Alice is a great character, not merely a Nancy Drew who only solves mysteries, but someone with a life outside, including school, friends and family. She is clever but displays dry humour, and develops well during the novel, realising that classroom troublemaker Kevin Jordan may work as a good ally in problem solving. She also has to deal with her home life – a family that needs some problem-solving too.

The story is set in Philadelphia and there are definite Americanisms throughout, but the hardest task was solving the mystery – readers will need to be steered thoroughly by Alice – there is none of the blatant clue-dropping as in the titles above, where the reader learns more than the protagonist. However, it’s great to see a heroine deciphering clues with her intelligence rather than random flashes of intuition, and it makes for a gripping read. Age 10+ years. Buy it here.

There are so many more mystery stories for this 9+ age group, that it’s hard to cover them all, but here are some of my favourites:

mmu

The Wells and Wong Mysteries, starting with Murder Most Unladylike by Robin Stevens is one of my favourite series. Set in the 1930s, it mashes Agatha Christie mysteries with Enid Blyton boarding schools. In the first in the series, Daisy and Hazel set up a detective agency in their school to look for missing ties and suchlike, but then stumble across the body of the science mistress lying dead in the gym. Suddenly they have a real mystery to solve. A brilliant story, complete with boarding school rules and regulations, but also the twist of a murder to solve. Great gentle fun; if you haven’t discovered them yet, you’re in for a treat. Seek it here.

marsh road mysteries

The Marsh Road Mysteries, starting with Diamonds and Daggers by Elen Caldecott. This series, all set in the same street with the gang of children who live there is reminiscent of Emil and the Detectives simply because the setting is almost as much a part of the story as the mystery itself. Caldecott is a very skilful writer, and hops from head to head in the narrative, so that each child’s viewpoint is seen. The first book in the series tells the story of a missing diamond necklace – a famous actress comes to the local theatre, but when her necklace goes missing, the prime suspect is one of the local children’s dads. Piotr has to fight to find out who really did it to avoid being sent ‘home’ to Poland with his security guard Dad. Each character is well defined; and the readership will adore the familiar territory of friendships and loyalties as the series progresses. Compelling and really vibrant – a modern day Famous Five (but better!). Buy it here.

cover

Mystery and Mayhem anthology
This is one I have featured before here, when Helen Moss kindly guest-posted. This is a sumptuous book of mini-mysteries from many of the authors featured today, so the reader can have a sample of small mysteries (which are easy to solve by the reader) and find out which author’s style they like. My favourite, The Mystery of the Green Room by Clementine Beauvais.

Try also Helen Moss, The Adventure Island and Secrets of the Tombs series, Lauren St John, The Laura Marlin Mysteries, and Katherine Woodfine, The Mystery of the Clockwork Sparrow.